Flossing device suffers from slipping sales
After losing big-name clients, family-run business looking for new growth in the U.S.
It is every manufacturer’s nightmare: a longtime multi-store client unexpectedly delists your product and swipes it off the shelf.
It happened to Ira Florence. But the way he tells it, his situation is no run-of-the-mill nightmare — it is a full-blown horror story.
“My revenues timeline looks like the rise and fall of a roller coaster at Canada’s Wonderland,” says Florence, owner and president of Concord, Ont.-based Sulcabrush, the manufacturer of a toothbrush-like flossing device.
So far, Sulcabrush is hanging on to its smaller clients — a mix of dentists, independent drug stores and a discount department store. But Florence needs to find new growth opportunities to rebuild the company’s customer base.
Up until 2004, business was booming. Sulcabrush was in every Shoppers Drug Mart outlet, as well as 4,500 Walgreens and 4,500 CVS Pharmacy stores in the U.S. It was also supplying about 8,000 Canadian and U.S. dental offices and selling 1,000 units per month to small independent drug stores.
Then the drop began. CVS left in 2004, Walgreens in 2005 and Shop- pers Drug Mart in 2011. In early 2014, a discount department chain (which he prefers not to name because they’re still a client) cut Sulcabrush from 120 of its 240 stores.
All three drug chains replaced Florence’s product with what he calls “cheap offshore knock-offs.”
As the business began unravelling, Florence downsized his staff of 17 to one loyal employee. (A $2-million manufacturing automation project, that was just wrapping up, made this possible.)
The losses sent Sulcabrush to the brink of bankruptcy, and it has only just steadied itself financially in the last two years.
The Sulcabrush was invented 29 years ago by Florence’s dentist father for his patients who found flossing messy and inconvenient. Florence took over the business in 1986 at age 24.
Using marketing skills honed while working in the retail clothing business and reaping the benefits of the then-weak Canadian dollar, Florence steadily built the business. Rev- enues grew by $250,000 per year from 1991 to 2003, peaked at $3 million in 2003 and have since levelled out to about $1 million in 2013. The company’s biggest loss has undoubtedly been Shoppers Drug Mart. Florence says the mega chain pulled the plug on the 15-year relationship by, one month, simply not placing its regular $30,000 to $40,000 monthly order (though the buyer insisted she informed him of the delisting by email, says Florence). Having just finished paying a compulsory $18,000 marketing fee, Florence thought his future with his biggest client was solid. Not so. “They squeezed us for every last drop of money they could,” Florence says. (Shoppers Drug Mart declined to comment on specifics, but says, “Vendor negotiations are proprietary in nature. We are always reviewing the performance of brands and products within our stores to ensure we have the right selection for our customers.”) Dental offices are now the lifeblood of his business, so Florence dropped the wholesale price for this group by 29 per cent to encourage new clients. He also beefed up his annual marketing and advertising budget to $200,000. Over the years, he has produced two television commercials, the latest which will air this spring on the Ontario TV listings channel. Today, Florence has no interest in working with drugstore chain clients. “They get tired of older items and just want new, new, new,” he says. Tricia Ryan, a Toronto marketing consultant who has specialized in the consumer packaged goods dental field for 15 years, says that competition for retail shelf space is increasingly fierce. “If a retailer can obtain a $100,000 listing fee from a new product that is perceived as more innovative or cheaper, why wouldn’t they?” says Ryan. “Retailers are constantly looking for brands that will cost them less and make them more money while satisfying consumer needs and wants.”
As for hiring a marketing consultant or refreshing his product, Florence dismisses both strategies, though a minor package redesign is planned for 2015. “No one knows this business like I do, and the Sulcabrush design is perfection,” he says.
Instead, Florence is pinning his company’s future on two mass sampling campaigns directed at the huge American dental market. He is sending 5,400 American periodontal offices and 3,600 American dental hygienists each a box of samples (at a shipping cost of about $13 per package). Each campaign will wrap up just before two large American dental conferences where his company will be exhibiting at the trade shows.
Florence is counting on the dental professionals and their patients to follow up with him to order.
“Will it work?” he asks. “I don’t know.”
He admits there are two major stumbling blocks to his marketing strategy: Many dentists strongly resist moving away from traditional dental products.
As well, the majority of them dislike retailing and instead direct patients to drug stores, he says — but no U.S. retailers currently sell the Sulcabrush.
He remains a zealous promoter of his father’s invention.
“My hope is to find more dentists who want to purchase the best product that will help their patients combat gum disease,” he says.
The Sulcabrush — a toothbrush-like device for flossing — was invented 29 years ago by Ira Florence’s father.